Paul Ricœur’s Living Up to Death

Summer of 1995. The French Philosopher, Paul Ricœur, by then age 82, has conversations on death with a long-time friend of his, Catherine Goldenstein. Presently, she speculates he soon after those conversations began thinking and writing the manuscripts that became Up to Death. Mourning and Cheerfulness. At the beginning of 1996, his wife’s health began degrading much more quickly than it had been. In 1997 he stopped this work on death, because it became too great a weight to bear. Fast forward to 2005, age 92, Ricœur passed away. 2009, his friend Goldenstein found the handwritten drafts he worked on around the time of his wife’s death, and made it part of what is now a book entitled Living Up to Death.

The central focus of Living Up to Death is on mourning our desire to survive death, and in response he suggests a life focused on living rather than on dying. The life focused on living, as Ricœur describes it, attempts to imitate Jesus’ service. In this way we have the “gift of life” in such a way that we contribute to others’ lives. Furthermore, Ricœur advocates heeding Jesus’ teachings on renouncing the self. The reward for life characterized by these things is primarily cheerfulness, though he explores the potential of eternal life which exists in God’s memory.

The problem Ricœur addresses is the anxiety people feel when realizing their impending death. This anxiety becomes a problem when it distracts the anxious person from living well, which here is life marked by service, renouncement, and cheerfulness. He attempts to relieve this anxiety with philosophical reflection, because, as he describes, philosophical reflection will untangle a few different senses attached to the word death. This clarification offered by this first untangling-type movement should give us a bit of relief from the anxiety we feel looking forward to death.

Ricœur explores three meanings of death. Each of these three meanings in some way has to do with our imagination of death. His first sense about death is in regard to the future perfect tense, where I imagine myself in the position where I can look back on the experience of having died. This is where questions like, “where do the dead presently live?” come from. These questions, Ricœur thinks, are ultimately useless, because they aim at something which may not exist.

Death as an event is the next idea Ricœur presents, death as a position where people are coming around ones’ death bed, the meaning of death there is that when we imagine ourselves in that future perspective we can mix up our perspectives of the onlookers and the actual person there.

In the third way someone understands death in response to an experience of surviving and encountering the death of another, Ricœur examines is death as a character who may be called “absolute Evil” (28). He explains the origin of this understanding as coming out of situations of where there are massive amounts of dead—concentration camps for example. An important detail here is that the death must be on such a scale that the person beholding it has difficulty distinguishing between the dead and the dying. If I look around the room and seem many people in terrible condition and can’t tell who is dead and who is dying, then go outside and see the same thing on the quad—this experience is where the idea of a personified evil Death originates.

Taking a tangent to relate this point to our class, Ricœur wonders about whether the idea of death “as an active agent” would have ever been thought of if it weren’t for scenes of massive death, like concentration camps (27). In one of our class discussions, we looked at Jesus’ ideas from a sociological perspective, which understands Jesus’ ideas to have originated not from revelation, but from his cultural context. In a similarly secular vein, Ricœur in this moment of reflection considers the potential of the idea of Death as an active agent, as being in situations where the amount of dead present is overwhelming, like an epidemic.

We can find another connection in thinking about death as an agent, like we discussed in the Death Dealt section of this course, death is sometimes understood as a personified figure working on behalf of another. I remember the poem entitled, “Azarel,” and the accompanying figures, the hospice worker who is apparently like Carl’s grandma, the lawyer–each of these figures helping somehow actively deliver death.

His first movement is characterized by three responses the person who encounters death develops. When we encounter someone’s death, a few questions arise in us, the survivors of that death, and these questions differ depending on how the person passed. Each of the three response he explains makes uses the imagination in our attempt to understand death. But this use of the imagination must be carefully examined, and certain aspects must be put to death—mourned, that is, in order for us to come to a point of cheerfulness, which again, is a life characterized by service that benefits others not only while it is alive, and that also benefits others posthumously.

The greatest relief to the sense of anxiety Ricœur initially raised as problem, however, comes at his second movement, where he details two thoughts that help point us towards a truer, more fruitful way of living. The two thoughts can be described as “perfect detachment” and “confidence in God’s care.”

The detail that stuck out to me was the first sense of death. This is death as a sense where we imagine that we can look back and reflect on our death. He says that’s something which is not a helpful process.

He says that is a significant position to him because he struggled with that idea.

And it’s significant to me because it expands my perspective where I can be satisfied in a position where I cannot look back and reflect on my death. This is expanding my understanding of different perspectives of death and looking at death.

I wrote this paper for a course at Gordon College called Sociologies of Death. Find the syllabus below.